I stopped at the grocery store last night to score some milk, and as I waited at the checkout I noticed that the cashier in the next aisle was sporting cutoff shorts, a tool belt, and a Tool Time name badge. I looked behind me and noticed a young man at the service desk dressed as a big bag of M&Ms. My cashier was dressed normally, and as I paid I quipped to her, “They couldn’t talk you into a costume, eh?”

She caught me a little off guard when she looked sheepishly at me and said, “My parents won’t allow it.” Then added, “It’s against my religion.” I told her that was a pretty good reason, and wished her a good evening as I left. But on the way home, the conversation troubled me more as I thought about it.

I understand that there are people who concerned about some of the darker occult origins to Halloween. I certainly respect that people have the right to raise their children in their own way and that includes opting in and out of whatever holiday situations they might choose. I’m also inclined to note that Halloween is really just a socially accepted excuse to dress up in costume and share a sugar high. Dressing up for school spirit week or the high school play would not be troubling to most of the people who are worried that the experience of emulating a movie character for one evening a year will turn their child to the dark side. Nonetheless, there is merit and moral consistency in refusing to participate in something because of what it stands for. If that’s the motivation, if non-participation is a social and moral statement, then I applaud and respect the decision.

However, this young girl was not making a statement. She was old enough to hold a job, therefore she was old enough to understand her motivations for not participating. And what she didn’t say to me was that she didn’t like what Halloween stood for. She didn’t say that the concept of Halloween was in conflict with her personal ethics, morality, or beliefs. She basically told me that she wasn’t allowed to participate, and her expression said that she couldn’t justify the reason.

This is a failing. It is a failing of her parents, and it is a failing of her religion. They have imposed rules without the moral context. She doesn’t know the reasons for her behavior, only that she has to behave. She doesn’t believe her behavior is right, just that it’s proper. Someday she will have children of her own. What will she teach them? Will she impose the rules simply because these are the rules which were handed down? Rationalizing that this is the way it has always been done? Will she rebel and discard what appear to be arbitrary rules? Sooner or later, the latter path will be taken. If not by her, then by her kids, or theirs.

Arbitrary authority always fails in the end. You can’t dictate morality and conscience. When your kids are three, telling them “because I said so” is sufficient. But long before they can drive, it’s time to educate them on why you say so. Why do you believe what you do? Why are the house rules what they are? What motivates you in making moral judgments and decisions? And before you can teach them, you have to know yourself. If you don’t, shame on you.

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